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How Crop Trait Technologies Are Helping Farmers Optimize Water

June 16, 2017
Farmers think about water every day—not just because it is needed to grow a successful crop, but because it is such an unpredictable input. Adding to this complexity is the reality that the world needs to produce more food while depending on this finite natural resource. This paradox is a key motivator for Syngenta as we endeavor to make crops more efficient, one of the six commitments that comprise The Good Growth Plan, our global sustainability initiative.

One technology that is moving the needle in improving crop efficiency is our water-optimized Agrisure Artesian® corn hybrids. At the most basic level, these corn hybrids use water more effectively, helping farmers better manage the unpredictability of weather.

Artesian hybrids are the product of a unique scientific process that allows researchers to select naturally occurring genes in corn that have been observed to help the plant regulate water use. Since drought is such a complex stress, developing water-optimized corn necessitated that we extensively study how water stress affects corn at the gene level. By doing so, we were able to identify multiple genes (native to the corn plant) that help the plant manage water throughout the season. These genes are then bred into corn hybrids, resulting in our water-optimized corn.

When these hybrids were planted in more than 1,000 field trials in 2012, we had no idea that the summer of 2012 would become synonymous with the worst drought in decades. These extreme conditions really tested our hybrids; in some of the worst conditions, they yielded nearly 50 percent higher than other hybrids.

Artesian corn hybrid pictured at right - Slater, Missouri (2014)

While the drought situation in subsequent growing seasons has been less pronounced, gaps in rainfall affect growers every year; there truly is no such thing as a ‘normal’ season. And it doesn’t take a high-impact drought to negatively impact crop yield—all it takes is a few days when there isn’t enough rain. Artesian hybrids have multiple genes that help the plant withstand these types of scenarios.

There is an important distinction between water optimization and drought tolerance in crops. When we talk about drought tolerance, we refer to a defensive strategy against the risk of drought—often at the expense of top-end yield in optimal growing conditions. But with water optimization, which we define as the conversion of more of the available water into grain, farmers can meet their production goals regardless of their water situation. That means that during a year with optimal growing conditions, farmers won’t be penalized for having planted a water-optimized hybrid.

While we’re all very excited about the success of our water-optimized corn, Syngenta remains committed to continued innovation in this space, embracing new technologies like genome editing, which can help researchers precisely introduce desired characteristics in plants faster.

Dr. Bensen is scheduled to speak at BIO’s 2017 International Convention in San Diego on Tuesday, June 20, on “Unpredictable Weather: How Biology-based Ag Innovations are Helping Society Adapt to and Mitigate Challenges”  as part of BIO’s Modern Ag Innovation Day programming. At this Convention session, we look at some of the work being done both to mitigate the causes of climate change, and to adapt to the impacts as they occur.